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West Virginia University

Personality, Health, and Development (PHaD) Lab


The PHaD Lab may accept applications from potential graduate students for Fall 2017 admission. If interested in working in the PHaD lab, contact Dr. Turiano at naturiano@mail.wvu.edu.

Current research in the PHaD Lab revolve around the relationship between individual difference factors and health across the entire life span. Specific attention is devoted to the Big 5 personality traits which include neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and openness to new experiences. Although, personality assessment in the PHaD lab is much broader than the Big 5 incorporating other psychological factors such as control beliefs, self-regulation, and motivations. To conduct this developmental research, the PHaD lab population based data from three major ongoing long-term longitudinal studies, the Midlife in the U.S. study (MIDUS), the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS), and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Using this panel data is complemented with focused lab studies utilizing college student and older adult samples. Below is a summary of the diverse work currently being in the PHaD lab.

Personality and Health Outcomes

The main emphasis of the PHaD Lab is to uncover the connections between personality characteristics and various health outcomes over the life span, with a specific attention to older ages when disease and disability are most prevalent. Outcomes of interest include physical functioning, obesity, onset of chronic disease, chronic disease comorbidity, and mortality. From our research we have identified that higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of conscientiousness are robust predictors of poorer health outcomes. In addition, a new line of research we are working on identifies the “healthy neurotic”—individuals who are both high in neuroticism and conscientiousness. These individuals are unique because although they have the risk factor (high neuroticism) for poorer outcomes and behaviors, somehow the higher levels of conscientiousness dampen these negative effects. In fact, there is some evidence that individuals exhibiting this trait constellation are actually the healthiest compared to others.

Mechanisms of the Personality-Health Association

Identifying the association between personality and health is only the initial stages of research in the PHaD Lab. More important is identifying the mechanisms underlying the personality-health association. Why does personality predict health on longevity? Much of our research is focused on exploring the health behavior model of personality. This model posits that individuals with certain personality characteristics either engage or refrain from detrimental health behaviors which ultimately influences health over time. We have found that some of the leading behavioral contributors to poorer health and premature mortality are indeed strongly associated with personality. Higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of conscientiousness are strongly associated with alcohol and tobacco use, as well as dietary and activity levels. Our research does support the health behavior model of personality that personality influences health partly via common health behaviors.

Personality and Physiological Functioning

Although health behaviors explain a portion of the personality-health association, other factors such a physiological function are also prevalent. Factors such as the physiological response to stress indexed by increased blood pressure and cortisol levels are mechanisms contributing to poorer health. In addition, there is now clear evidence that personality is related to several inflammatory cytokine such as IL-6 and CRP which are know risk factors for poorer health and premature mortality. One of the main goals o the PHaD lab is to study the bidirectional pathways of both behavior and physiology as the mechanisms connecting personality and health. Such investigations are needed to fully uncover why and how personality is related to health and longevity.

Personality Change

More recent evidence shows that personality traits are not set like plaster by early adulthood. Rather, personality development continues to occur even into the 70s and 80s. Not only is there ample evidence for this continued development, but there is also emerging evidence that this change has important ramifications for both behavior and health. Thus, the PHaD Lab finds it essential to longitudinally examine how personality changes over time and how this influences both behavior and health outcomes. Personality, as well as behavior, are not static risk factors so the associations and mechanisms connecting personality to health can and do change depending on a specific point in the life span.

Personality and Health Disparities

Many risk factors for poor health outcomes exist. One such factor that has emerged is ower socioeceonimc status (SES) marked by either low levels of formal education or low income. However, some individual difference factors can act as buffers against the negative effects of low SES. For example, we have found that although those in lower SES strata have an increased risk of dying, if they endorse stronger control beliefs they negate the low SES risk factor and do not have an increased mortality risk. Those with a high school education have the same mortality risk as those with college degrees if they endorse these strong control beliefs about their lives. Identifying such buffering psychological factors is key to understanding how individuals are resilient in the face of health disparities. Moreover, we seek to understand how these psychological factors develop and act as resilience factors.